Liberty and the Conquest of Chance

Greg Weiner

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At around 9:40 A.M. on November 1, 1755, an earthquake originating beneath the Atlantic Ocean struck Lisbon, Portugal, with the force of 32,000 atomic bombs. Churches collapsed, burying worshipers gathered for All Saints' Day. Survivors of the quake fled to the bank of the Tagus River where, half an hour later, a tsunami surged up the waterway and engulfed them. The destruction triggered fires so ferocious that they assumed the properties of a storm, devouring oxygen and suffocating anyone who did not burn.

Estimates of the death toll from the Great Lisbon Earthquake reach into the tens of thousands. The temblor sent shockwaves not only through the physical world, but through the realms of philosophy and theology as well. Historian Mark Molesky recounts the theme of the hundreds of publications that appeared in the years following the event:

A Pandora's box of questions almost as capacious as the tectonic chasm itself had been opened up in a continent that stood, in the eyes of many, upon the precipice of a new age. Who, or what, was responsible for Lisbon's destruction?

Some scientific inquiry ensued, including early forays into natural philosophy by Immanuel Kant. But the thrust of the issue was not the earthquake's scientific cause; it was its moral explanation.

Voltaire stood nearly alone in declaring that there was none: From a moral perspective, the quake was a purely arbitrary event. Writing in verse, the great French provocateur unleashed a savage attack on the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Alexander Pope, insisting that the disaster disproved divine providence and demonstrated the wild chaos of nature.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was characteristically annoyed with this explanation. In a letter to Voltaire, he replied that humanity was to blame: Had people not abandoned their natural innocence and packed into dense cities, the quake would not have been so devastating.

In England, the Methodist cleric John Wesley delivered a sermon attributing the Lisbon tragedy to God's vengeance on sinners. "Why should we not be convinced sooner, while that conviction may avail, that it is not chance which governs the world?" he asked. "[A]llowing there are natural causes of all [earthly events], they are still under the direction of the Lord of nature."

In Wesley's estimation, we have only two options: We can ascribe morally significant causes to events, or we can admit that the events of this world are governed purely by chance. In denying the influence of chance, Wesley insisted that earthly events were attributable to morally significant causes.

But what if neither option is true? Political, social, and economic phenomena have causes, of course. But what if they are not morally significant, or even discretely identifiable ones?

Modern rationalists like to think they have transcended what they regard as the superstition of a John Wesley. They understand that events can be products of chance in the sense of being morally arbitrary. But their attempts to conquer chance — to compel morally arbitrary events to conform to abstract judgments of justice — are as zealous as Wesley's belief in divine intervention. And they reveal a tension at the core of Enlightenment thought.

The tension is this: Enlightenment politics accentuates freedom, while Enlightenment science emphasizes control. Ultimately, the two are incompatible.


Causation is central to the human experience. It is among a child's first fascinations: the cup that tumbles from the high chair after a shove; the reflection in the mirror that waves back. It is our central ordering principle — a necessity for making sense of the world, for foreclosing the ominous possibility that substantial swaths of life might surpass our control.

It was also central to the Enlightenment, but in a particular way. Centuries earlier, in the Posterior Analytics, Aristotle had organized science around four causes: The formal cause was the design of a thing, the material cause was that of which it was made, the efficient cause was the manner of its making, and the final cause was its telos or purpose. His followers came to call this system the "organon," or instrument. For Aristotle, some efficient causes, such as the cause of the creation of the universe, are unknowable, while final causes are discernible by reason.

When Francis Bacon published his New Organon in 1620, he dismissed final causes as "a long way from being useful" and deemed the search for them "hopeless." Because they were not empirically verifiable, final causes "distort[ed]" science. His contention opened a significant gateway to modernity: While Aristotle was concerned with the ultimate purpose of a thing, Bacon was only interested in its proximate cause — the rational design that was susceptible to empirical observation.

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan applied Bacon's method to politics. It was deeply rooted in a modern notion of causation. Science — the "knowledge of consequences," as Hobbes put it — made it possible both to predict the future and to control it by discovering what caused what. Hobbes has been portrayed as an authoritarian — his sovereign required total power to suppress civic strife — but he was also liberal: Stability, in his eyes, was a precondition of personal freedom as well as progress.

John Locke emulated much of Hobbes's method but reached different conclusions. Politics, he insisted, evolved from a state of nature and served a rational purpose: namely the protection of personal property, including personal liberty. For Locke, a rational state, aligned to what reason told us were the origin and purpose of politics, would ensure freedom.

Yet complications with this formulation ensued. Rousseau's Social Contract sought to impose reason on politics, but with less liberal results. The "general will," in Rousseau's telling, accords with reason. In imposing this reason on the body politic, the state did no more than force individuals to be free.

More recently, John Rawls employed the contractarian method in his Theory of Justice, a work so influential that the expectation of economic fairness is now part of the political atmosphere we breathe. Rawls's conception of justice emerges from the "original position," a situation in which individuals choose social arrangements stripped of knowledge of their "morally arbitrary" traits. Justice, in Rawls's telling, can only be based on what is reasonable, not what is arbitrary. The contrast here is key: That which is not explicitly reasonable is morally arbitrary.

Rawls's crucial pivot came next. With a remarkable lack of justification, he presumed that this arbitrariness warranted the re-arrangement of economic institutions to eradicate inequalities that do not help everyone. He seemed to regard this conclusion as self-evident, as has much of the commentary on his work. But it is not.

Rawls's leap assumes questionable premises, the foremost among which is that we can bend all events to our rational will. We can bend some events, of course — a responsibility humanity must never abdicate. But neither should we abdicate, as Rawls did, the duty of distinguishing that which is from that which is not within human control.

Of course, we can attempt to compel what abstract reason tells us is just. Vladimir Lenin tried just that, with catastrophic results. In fact, all such attempts have terminated in gross abuse. It is worth considering why.

The first explanation is that there are constraints on human reason, the single largest of which is human nature. People are not pieces on a social or political chessboard; they have their own preferences, interests, and views of the just. Imposing uniformity requires comprehensive authority over their choices — in other words, a restriction of liberty.

Another constraint is the infinite complexity of human affairs. It is possible to influence them, but not entirely to control them. The problem is not that we make poor choices; it is that many of the most important realms of human action simply are not susceptible to control.

For a devotee of Kantian individualism, Rawls is markedly inattentive to the personal-liberty implications of a state with the power to dictate economic distributions according to his principles. Such a state would have to distinguish between what people deserve and what advantages are morally arbitrary — unless, like Rawls, it prefers to regard everything as arbitrary and to equalize accordingly. In either case, it would have to police all economic transactions, consolidating power at the center. Rawlsian politics thus originates in individual dignity and ends in total control, bringing to light the tension at the heart of Enlightenment thought.


All this is rooted in an illusion, what might be called "the myth of causation." In Baconian science, individual events have discrete causes. For Hobbes, as for Locke, political phenomena do too. These causes are discrete in the sense that they can be identified and attributed to morally significant forces — ones that merit praise or blame. The converse of this argument is that unreasonable or even morally indifferent causes produce unjust consequences, which should, in turn, be corrected.

But political and social life does not work that way. Both institutions and obligations arise from dispersed forces that no individual, or even identifiable group of individuals, controls. That is not to say that individuals, whether statesmen or citizens, do not influence institutions or events: World War II would not have started without Hitler, nor would it have been won without Churchill. The point, rather, is that political phenomena are not always the result of discrete causes to which responsibility or moral culpability can be assigned, or that we can readily re-order along rational lines. Political institutions that arise over centuries can be explained, but there is no single individual or event that can be praised or blamed for them.

The most important and enduring political institutions arise gradually from diffuse forces. Edmund Burke's understanding of the British Constitution is the paradigmatic case of a regime with no discrete cause. He traced its gradual accretion back into time until it disappeared into the mists of the Anglo-Saxon forests, where English liberty was said to have originated. During the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Burke held that such mysteries were necessary because no government could survive scrutiny of its origins:

There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginning of all governments. Ours in India had an origin like those which time has sanctified by obscurity. Time, in the origin of most governments, has thrown this mysterious veil over them; prudence and discretion make it necessary to throw something of the same drapery over more recent foundations, in which otherwise the fortune, the genius, the talents, and military virtue of this nation never shone more conspicuously.

In his history of England, David Hume had similarly chastised King James I for forcing the English Constitution's ambiguity into the open by harassing his critics in Parliament. Raising political questions so clearly, according to Hume, invited the king's subjects to debate them, thereby elevating the reason of the moment over the accretion and stability of custom:

The king having thus, with so rash and indiscreet a hand, torn off that sacred veil which had hitherto covered the English constitution, and which threw an obscurity upon it so advantageous to royal prerogative, every man began to indulge himself in political reasonings and inquiries; and the same factions which commenced in parliament, were propagated throughout the nation.

One reason to maintain constitutional obscurity, or not to look too carefully at the beginnings of states, is that, having gradually evolved, lasting regimes are likely to be incompatible with abstract reason. That was precisely Thomas Paine's case for overturning the British regime in Common Sense: Its composition was irrational. But it was irrational in a particular sense. No pamphleteer at his writing desk would deliberately design a regime that empowered one governing element — the Commons — on the basis of its being wise while simultaneously checking its power. But no statesman would empower a pamphleteer to write a constitution ab initio, either. Paine did not consider the possibility that British politics reflected generational rather than immediate reason.

The American regime is often said to differ from the British because it had a moment of founding: July 4, 1776. This is the basis of the claims of Harry Jaffa and his pupils, who insist that subsequent events must conform to what they take to be the Declaration of Independence's founding doctrine of natural rights. Yet the Declaration did not build a new regime from nothing; instead, it sought to preserve local governing arrangements already in place. As Willmoore Kendall and George Carey showed, these arrangements had evolved for more than a century on American shores, with a British genealogy dating back further.

As the product of the deliberate choices of a body of 55 men meeting for 116 days, the Constitution made a similar claim to a discrete, and reasonable, cause. Federalist 1 implored the emergent nation to establish its government on the basis of "reflection and choice" rather than "accident and force." Yet this is a false dichotomy — or, at the very least, it does not exhaust all the options available. Governments can also evolve, influenced by accident but shaped through what Burke called "the collected reason of ages." The Constitution was substantially the product of such evolution.

After all, few of the governing forms adopted in Philadelphia were wholly new. Instead, the founders adapted existing forms of government to the nation's needs. History supplies plenty of illustrations of governments abstractly conceived and discretely founded. But like Lenin's proto-Soviet constitution of 1918, they almost invariably terminate in widespread abuse and abject cruelty. There is no other way to crowbar dispersed political forces into the constraints of what abstract reason tells us is just.

Regarding our own founding in such a way feeds the narrative of injustice — not simply one of original sin, but of injustice that is all the more grave because it can always be, yet has not been, corrected. Since injustice can be eradicated, this reasoning implies, any failure to do so must be willful. The myth of causation thus feeds the illusion of control — the fantasy that politics arises from discrete causes and can therefore answer to discretely rational standards.


To say politics cannot answer to abstract reason is not to say that it is unreasonable. Gradual evolution — "the method of nature in the conduct of the state," as Burke wrote — is not a chance process. Politics may be influenced by accident, as evolution is, but it is nonetheless the result of choices — just not identifiable choices that comport with the standards of reason to which a decision made by one person at one time would be held. Some of these choices may be, as Burke seems to acknowledge, unsavory. But others may simply resist reduction to a rational formula at all.

Reason should inform our judgments of a regime. We should be able to say — and we certainly do — that a regime that permits human enslavement is unjust, whereas one rooted in human equality is just. Likewise, Aristotelian standards can tell us whether a regime accords with its telos. But just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that social science was useful for evaluating rather than crafting social policy, political philosophy can best help with retrospective assessment of a regime that already exists. It is dangerous when used to craft an ideal regime from scratch.

Judging regimes as though they were abstractly designed — the way Paine judged the British Constitution — deforms our understanding. It is akin to judging the architecture of a rambling ranch house that has been built outward over time. In his Discourse on Method, René Descartes offers a similar analogy:

Thus those ancient cities that were once mere villages and in the course of time have become large towns are usually so poorly laid out, compared to those well-ordered places that an engineer traces out on a vacant plain as it suits his fancy, that even though, upon considering each building one by one in the former sort, one often finds as much, if not more, art than one finds in those of the latter sort, still, upon seeing how the buildings are arranged — here a large one, there a small one — and how they make the streets crooked and uneven, one would say that it is chance rather than the will of some men using reason that has arranged them thus.

Descartes proceeds to disclaim the possibility that a latter-day urban planner could uproot a gradually accreted city in the name of reform, but he plainly prefers rational design to evolutionary change. For Descartes, the situation he describes — which involves human choice, just not choice rooted in reason at a discrete moment — is "chance."

Good regimes are like Descartes's ancient city. They reflect the aggregation of human wisdom, encoded in what Burke, employing the Roman law of long usage, called "prescriptive" arrangements. Because they are dispersed, their wisdom is also decentralized. And because their wisdom is decentralized, it reflects compromises and adjustments that do not necessarily comport with the standards of a given moment.

Friedrich Hayek famously referred to the product of such decentralized forces as "spontaneous order" — his term for the market economy. In doing so, he identified an important feature of market forces that is also applicable to political ones: They cannot be planned at the center or judged as though they had been. But his characterization of such order as "spontaneous" went too far. The choices that form an economy or a regime occur not spontaneously, but gradually over time. They are not capricious, as they require human choice. But they rarely reflect choices made at a single, discernible moment. They are rather the product of infinitely complex forces that both resist human control and defy abstract judgment.

Michael Oakeshott called the belief in such judgment "Rationalism." It is the social equivalent of the intelligent-design alternative to biological evolution. The rationalist, Oakeshott wrote, "never doubts the power of his ‘reason' (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action." He thus applies the Enlightenment science of control at the cost of the Enlightenment politics of liberty.

But the rationalist actually goes further, in that he never doubts that everything is characterized by "worth," "truth," or "propriety" in the first place. This is what causes him to "assimilat[e] politics to engineering." Yet human affairs resist engineering precisely because there is rarely "a" thing, "an" opinion, or "an" action. Complexity negates such judgment.

For the rationalist, if every problem has an identifiable moral cause, each also has an identifiable solution that is subject to moral evaluation. Yet this perspective rejects the human condition's intrinsic constraints, which arise from the limitless complexity of social institutions. Burke wrote of the complexity of such institutions and the impulse to control them in his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs:

An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers.

Because the rationalist believes control is possible, the failure to exert it becomes morally assailable. Similarly, because something can be done to prevent or address unjust outcomes, anything not done is subject to moral condemnation. Witness the constant resort in political rhetoric to the moonshot metaphor: If we can put a man on the moon, we can eliminate disease, conquer poverty, or achieve any other visionary goal. But while our imagination may be limitless, human capacity is not. There is a difference between a specific goal that is difficult to achieve but is nonetheless achievable and a problem that, because its complexity is infinite, is in principle insoluble. We cannot cure diseases by sheer will, even though we may wish to do so. Likewise, no achievement of technology could enable us to control a complex modern economy — which is not to say we should want to do so at all.

This suggests, in turn, a darker side of an otherwise unassailable modern political value: accountability. Few question the principle that presidents should be held accountable for what happens on their watch, for instance. But because we do not hold people accountable for what they do not control, to make someone responsible is to make him powerful. Here, the tension between liberty and authority emerges in sharp relief.

Like the philosophers and theologians unsettled by the Lisbon earthquake, we demand explanations of institutions and events, and then expect them to conform to our will. The stock market, to take one example, aggregates trillions of individual choices, yet we speak of it — and make demands of it — as though it were a single human being. The economy as a whole is more complicated still, and yet we insist on referring to it in singular, anthropomorphic terms. When politics produces outcomes we do not like, we refer to a corrupt "system" — as though one person, not tens of millions of citizens, operate it.

Individuals can act fairly or unfairly, justly or corruptly. The only way to force an entire system to comply with a standard of fairness, whatever that may be, is to control it. And the degree of centralized control that would be required to break the system to the bridle of discrete causation — if, that is, it can be broken at all — is incompatible with liberty. We can be rationalists, or we can be liberals. We cannot be both.


Wesley's sermon on the Lisbon earthquake reflected an apparent dichotomy between providence and chance: Either God ruled the world, or nothing did. That did not commit Wesley to the optimism of an Alexander Pope, who famously declared that "[w]hatever is, is right." But the dichotomy, like the leap from Wesley's assumption that the earthquake was providential to his conclusion that it was punitive, is fragile.

In the Christian tradition, belief in providence is accompanied by an appreciation of mystery. Mystery is the basis of revelation. Faith is necessary because revelation is incomplete: We do not, and cannot, know what is evident to the divine eye. Leo Strauss wrote that natural right, if fully known, would "act as dynamite for civil society." Similarly, divine mystery, if unveiled, would act as dynamite to faith. In that sense mystery, like revelation, is a gift.

In his novel Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene imagines the "terrible dream" of a modern priest descended from the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance:

He had dreamt that Christ had been saved from the Cross by the legion of angels to which on an earlier occasion the Devil had told Him that He could appeal. So there was no final agony, no heavy stone which had to be rolled away, no discovery of an empty tomb. Father Quixote stood there watching on Golgotha as Christ stepped down from the Cross triumphant and acclaimed. The Roman soldiers, even the Centurion, knelt in His honour, and the people of Jerusalem poured up the hill to worship Him. The disciples clustered happily around. His mother smiled through her tears of joy. There was no ambiguity, no room for doubt and no room for faith at all. The whole world knew with certainty that Christ was the Son of God.

This nightmare is precisely what modernity seeks. If any political principle defines the present day, it is a distrust of mystery. It is a short trip from there to the conquest of chance. That was precisely Voltaire's conclusion: Nature would not conform to reason, so human institutions must. Yet that reasoning is as problematic as the premise he ridiculed. As the theologians posited, the earthquake occurred; because it occurred, it must be morally explicable; and because it was morally explicable, God must have willed it. Voltaire's reasoning reflected the flip side of that coin: Because a natural disaster was morally inexplicable, human reason must conquer nature.

Yet political systems are inevitably influenced by chance events — like the earthquake, which disrupted European life and politics. That may explain political philosophy's persistent interest in natural disasters: After all, an enterprise of reason must grapple with that which has no apparent cause. "Come now," says the Athenian in Book 3 of Plato's Laws, "let us picture to ourselves one of the many catastrophes — namely, that which occurred once upon a time through the Deluge." Though floods destroy everything in their wake, as the Athenian notes, they were apt to spare unskilled herdsmen working in the highlands: "Unwittingly, as it seems, we have now set foot, as it were, on the starting-point of legislation." For Plato, the routine disruption caused by natural disasters powered the cycle of regimes.

This notion of cycles differs fundamentally from the modern notion of directional time that records either regress or progress. Niccolò Machiavelli urges princes to tame fortuna in the same way they would tame a flooding river, for arbitrary forces in political life can be conquered:

It happens similarly with fortune, which demonstrates her power where virtue has not been put in order to resist her and therefore turns her impetus where she knows that dams and dikes have not been made to contain her. And if you consider Italy, which is the seat of these variations and that which has given them motion, you will see a country without dams and without any dike. If it had been diked by suitable virtue, like Germany, Spain, and France, either this flood would not have brought the great variations that it has, or it would not have come here.

For Rousseau, political life was the problem. In the Discourse on Inequality, he wrote that "[g]reat floods or earthquakes" were among the forces that push men nearer to each other and therefore into society. He then proceeds to blame society, not nature, for the disasters that ensue:

...if you take into account the fires and earthquakes that engulf or overturn entire cities and kill off their inhabitants by the thousands — in short, if you add up the dangers which all these causes are continually gathering above our heads, you will sense how dearly nature makes us pay for the contempt we have shown for her lessons.

These are not the only examples of political philosophers contending with natural disasters. For Giambattista Vico, the Biblical flood triggered the beginning of history: The dispersed sons of Noah divinized, by different names, the lightning that attended the storm. Friedrich Nietzsche was said to have been profoundly troubled by an earthquake on the Italian island of Ischia in 1883, going as far as to suggest it might have been related to his completion of Zarathustra.

What is striking about such treatment of natural disasters is that it is almost entirely concerned with human control. It assumes human choices lie at the root of naturally occurring events, and it then tries such events at the bar of moral causation.


Addressing Congress last April, President Joe Biden promised — in his words, "guarantee[d]" — both "fairness and justice" in the economy. It is unclear at best that presidents can deliver on such promises or, if they could, that we would want to vest them with the power to do so. By contrast, it would sound strange for a president to guarantee fairness and justice in natural phenomena. We know these do not obey our demands. Yet political and economic phenomena bear more similarities to natural ones than we are comfortable acknowledging.

Economic phenomena are not natural disasters. Like natural disasters, though, they are substantially influenced by chance. Luck plays a significant role in economic life: People lose jobs or fail to acquire them because of recessions they do not cause and global economic trends they do not control. Homes lose value because of real-estate trends no one predicted. Some people are better endowed with natural skills that attract higher premiums in the market — after all, there is no moral principle according to which people skilled at basketball should earn more than people who are skilled at soccer. And yet this is the way things are in the United States.

Thus we return to the question with which this essay began: What if economic and political phenomena do not — or cannot — comply with moral reason as though they were deliberately caused? What if causation, as we apply the concept to social arrangements, is a myth? What would that mean for political life?

It might, as we have seen, mean a proliferation of ill-considered attempts at control. But it might also mean an acceptance of the seemingly arbitrary. This would be a good in the same sense as mystery is a good: because it enables faith. Acceptance of mystery requires the virtue of humility. It discourages radicalism without justifying quietism. The fact that we will always have the poor with us does not excuse us from the duty of charity: On the contrary, the inevitability of poverty, and the influence of arbitrary events on whom it touches, accentuates our social responsibility to address it.

But there is a difference between a regime that insures against the inherently harsh edges of a free economy and one that seeks to re-order — as Rawls would — every phenomenon to moral criteria. A state with that degree of authority must wield power it would be difficult not to abuse. Similarly, there is a difference between a regime that recognizes it is partly the product of accident and force, not simply reflection and choice, and one that subverts political institutions that are not, strictly speaking, morally reasonable.

A regime that embraces the fact that not everything is known or knowable will be cautious about the use of power. Perhaps an acceptance of mystery would also lead to a renewal of faith — not the severe and unforgiving faith that sees natural tragedy as divine punishment, but a faith based on the reasonable limits of reason.

These limits are essential to an adult's view of the world. The child, just learning causation, sees a world without moral causation as a terrifying place, but the adult recognizes that such is often unavoidably the case. Sometimes events occur without someone to blame, in which case it is the consequences of those events, not the events themselves, that deserve social attention. Sometimes we operate under constraints that complexity imposes, and in these cases, we must limit our expectations. Adults know these facts in private life but often forget them in politics.

The statesman knows that recognizing when events are within our control and when we must accede to them is the hinge of prudence. But he also knows the price of total control is total submission. Such is the tension between liberty and the conquest of chance. It is, in a political sense, the difference between the perspective of an adult and the fantasy of a child. Politics, of course, does not always arouse our most mature qualities. But political reflection can.

Greg Weiner is provost and vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of political science at Assumption University, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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